A controversial referendum for Kurdish independence in Northern Iraq dominated the region’s headlines and triggered the rapid deployment of Iraqi forces to Kirkuk.
As expected, on 25 September Kurds in Northern Iraq held a referendum for independence from Iraq. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Kurds have enjoyed a de-facto regional governance and since then have aspired to create an independent Kurdistan. Some 92 per cent voted in favour of the ‘Yes’ option. While the referendum was non-binding, the main challenge was always going to be the question of what would follow.
This week we found out. Baghdad-backed forces rapidly mobilised against Kurdish Peshmerga in Kirkuk, capturing a military base and gas fields and then entering the city. Peshmerga (who had captured the city from so-called Islamic State (IS) offered little resistance. The arrival of Baghdad forces was welcomed by the city’s Arabs and Turkmen but triggered an exodus of thousands of Kurdish civilians, fleeing towards the northern cities of Sulaimaniya and Erbil in Kurdistan.
All the main regional actors had vehemently opposed the independence moves and both Turkey and Iran backed the Iraqi central government’s rejection of the referendum outcome. Internationally, the move for independence was rejected by the US, UK, and EU as being wrong in timing.
Tensions between Baghdad and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani have been highest over the control of land taken by Kurdish forces from so-called Islamic State (IS) and over the disputed city of Kirkuk. While Kurds are the largest single ethnic group in the city, they are not the overall majority and the area is also rich in oil reserves.
It is not clear how far armed conflict might go, but it is plain that difficult days lie ahead for Kurds. This ethnic group suffered terribly in Saddam’s Iraq, and their dreams of independence are long held. The question is not so much “if” they will achieve independence, but “when” and “how”, and “where” will their borders be set.
US-Turkey relations under strain
Moving northwards of emerging Kurdistan, Turkey has seen a grave deterioration of relations with the United States. The US Embassy in Turkey announced that it would suspend non-immigrant visas for Turkish citizens after Turkey detained two Turkish employees from the US Embassy and refused them access to lawyers. Turkey retaliated by suspending all visas to Americans.
US-Turkish relations have been strained since the final phase of the Obama administration. While Turkey hoped it could work with the Trump leadership, both countries have fundamentally contradictory policies on almost all issues. While Americans raise issues of human rights in Turkey and concern over President Erdogan’s apparent aim for closer relations with Russia and Iran, Turks raise the issue of the US arming Kurdish groups in Syria.
Sadly, Andrew Brunson, the US pastor of an Izmir Evangelical church, has been sucked in to a clash between countries. While the US Secretary of State has repeatedly demanded the release of the pastor, jailed over unsubstantiated allegations of aiding plotters of the 2016 attempted coup, President Erdogan has demanded that the US extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen in exchange. This has been a deep shock to Christians in Turkey. Many believe Brunson is being used as a bargaining chip, and some Turkish Christians are talking about leaving the country as conditions become more difficult.
Old conflicts, new crises
On the Yemen front, sadly, the conflict shows no sign of ending and the blockade continues. Latest reports claim that cholera cases in the country could reach 1 million by the end of the year. Food and water shortages, and limited access to health care has turned the conflict into a major humanitarian crisis.
In Syria, some think we have entered the final phase of the prolonged civil war. The offensive against Raqqa is almost over, with a new deal reached to ensure remaining IS terrorists are given safe passage out of the city. Meanwhile, the latest agreement, forged in Astana, between Turkey, Iran and Russia meant Turkey has increased its military presence in Syria to ensure a ceasefire around the town of Idlib. Despite this, reports of the bombing of civilians continue. It is difficult to forecast what will follow: wider areas of low-level conflict, with some pockets still in the control of various militant groups perhaps.
The question “Can the region accommodate yet another crisis?” was prompted again by the decision of President Trump to prepare the way to cancel the nuclear enrichment deal brokered with Iran. The US President claimed Iran is not abiding by the deal, and that the agreement is neither in the interests of the US nor regional safety – views that were publicly rejected by the EU and UK who see the deal as essential to securing nuclear security and long term peace in the Middle East. Trump’s move was welcomed by the Israeli government and Saudi king, but sharply criticised by most American nuclear experts, UN entities and even large numbers of US diplomats.
If the US pulls out of the deal and imposes new sanctions, this could galvanise the Iranian regime to press ahead with its nuclear ambitions, confident of public support. Nuclear ambitions are best curtailed in the early stages before a country has the technical capacity to develop weapons for ballistic missiles, as we see in the North Korean example.
Saudi Arabia, however, continues to be a keen supporter of current US policies in the region. The dispute between the Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, and Qatar continues. Recently, Qatar was asked to pull out of hosting the 2022 World Cup as a condition for ending the dispute. This followed a similar long list of unrealistic demands on Qatar. There seems to be no resolution on the horizon.
Christians in the Middle East
There was heartbreaking news from Egypt concerning the murder of Coptic Orthodox priest Samaan Shehata in a suburb of Cairo. Father Samaan was attacked by a knife-wielding man, who was later arrested. Coptic Christians expressed fury over the intimidation many Coptic priests and monks face as they walk Egypt’s streets. Initial reports suggest the attacker was a radicalised Islamist.
From Syria, the Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius Joseph III Younan, voiced a sense of disappointment in Western Christians and their governments. According to the Catholic News Agency, the Patriarch said that many Middle East believers “feel we have been abandoned, even betrayed, because we were hoping that the international community would defend our rights and provide us with the equal chance to live in our homeland, but that wasn’t the case.”
On a positive note, thousands of Evangelical Christians in Egypt have attended a series of major Christian conferences. Three festivals took place in Minya, in Upper Egypt, and two others, including the One Thing youth festival, occurred in the north of the country. These took place after a summer of security restrictions that forced all offsite meetings to be cancelled. SAT-7 broadcast all of these festivals to encourage Christians both within Egypt and across the region.